Could e-Services Be the Way for Your Charity?

Charities often don’t invest in new technology and online services because of the cost, but software as a service (SaaS) could be the answer.
by Patrick Nash

1561435951_b478ff38eaCharity websites are big business. Growing an online presence is critical – for fundraising, public relations, marketing and much more. Digital marketing managers command good salaries and there are armies of consultants and agencies. The competition for charity website awards is intense.

But despite all this, I would argue that the third sector is, in most cases, behind the curve of the e-service revolution. I’m not sure that many charities know what e-services are and if they do, many reject the notion that their charities service users will access their services online.

Charities provide a wide range of services but for the purpose of this article I have separated services into two categories: services to clients/service users (e.g. advice, helplines, treatment, housing, aid, support, etc) and services to donors/members (e.g. communications, development, campaigns, etc). My view is that there is every reason why charities should make all these and other services available online – and ensure strong integration between existing services and those provided online.

The benefits are enormous – improved client, user and donor engagement, superior user experience and significant efficiencies. At a time when many charities are looking for cost savings, going down this path will cut costs and can be delivered without infrastructure costs by deploying the software as a service (SaaS) approach. Software as a service is a hosted system, so is deployed over the web. Sometimes known as Cloud Technology, this means there is no need for the organization to ‘buy’ software or invest in IT infrastructure – you license it on a ‘pay as you use’ basis.

The private sector is already there on e-services as are parts of the public sector. Newer online companies like and as well as established brands such as Nikon, British Airways and BT have created high quality e-services combining customer relationship management (CRM), existing databases, e-marketing, self-learning knowledge along with existing service delivery (in person and on the phone). Parts of the public sector have been successful in this area and there is now a requirement for local authorities to provide e-services. And in the US, the Obama for America election campaign used an e-service/CRM platform to dazzling effect last year (incidentally the same platform used by Teacher Support Network and Energy Savings Trust, see below).

The e-service revolution has yet to take off in the charity sector, but it will and those who get in early will reap the benefits. There are a few examples, largely ‘under the radar’ of the largest charities.

Interestingly in the UK this year’s Charity Times Award for ‘Best Use of the Web’ went to Teacher Support Network, by far the smallest of the shortlisted charities. Teacher Support Network has combined its website with an e-service platform integrated with its multi-channel contact center. The charity is now supporting school teachers with online advice, self-assessment tools and e-communications to every school in the country, doubling its service use at no extra cost in one year. The collected data forms the largest database of issues facing teachers and has been used to influence government education policy. The charity has developed simple and yet sophisticated ‘user journeys’ that automatically help service users and donors find their way to information, advice and support online, over the phone or in person. All of this developed with a simple, attractive and informative website, backed up with a world-leading SaaS CRM platform.

Another charity, the Energy Savings Trust has deployed a software as a service CRM approach to the challenge of encouraging home insulation and energy saving measures. Matt Percy, their CRM Manager, says that their e-service implementation has given them “more sophisticated understanding of what our customers’ want, richer information to support business development, reduced cost and reduced reliability on in-house IT systems with all the risks attached to these”.

However these and other great examples are very much the minority. All too often, developing e-services is not seen as a priority. Many charities have IT systems developed before the advent of e-service platforms. Others are not convinced that their donors or service users will use online services. And some are simply afraid of the costs. My experience is that getting started on e-services does not need to cost much and can be done over time – so a charity can test the water without making a big investment up front.

So what do you need to do to get your charity started on the e-services revolution? I’ve spent the last three years establishing e-service systems for charities and other organizations and here are my top tips.

  1. Start simple. Start providing an e-service in an area that will make a difference straight away – don’t try and do everything at once.
  2. Clear vision. Have a clear vision for e-services to be at the heart of your charity’s services, fundraising and operations – not some add-on activity. It helps if this vision is held by the Chief Executive and Trustees and is regularly articulated.
  3. Make a flow chart. Try and create a simple flow chart of what you would like to achieve – I had a charity do this recently and it has made designing their system really simple and understandable.
  4. Get external support. Be wary of consultants – but get some support from someone who has actually implemented e-service platforms successfully, at both strategic and operational levels, and preferably in the Third Sector if possible.
  5. Explore options. Have a look at the options available – but make sure you get a high quality system as you will save money in the long run. While there is open source software available, you will be condemned to a life of code writing and customizations. Open source systems lack the ‘industrial strength’ delivery capability of a well known system.
  6. Compare costs accurately. When comparing costs, remember that most SaaS systems are ‘pay as you go’ so you only pay for what you use – and that you will not have to pay for server capacity and internal IT management as you do with in-house installed systems.
  7. Consider letting go of the old. Be prepared to consider letting go of some of your existing database systems – they have served you well up to now, but you could risk being left behind if you hang on and create long term problems.
  8. Designate staff from the start. A good e-service system should be easy enough for members of your staff to configure and adapt to meet your requirements. Make sure you designate staff to be involved in this work from the start and work with your technology provider or reseller. Try and find a provider or reseller with Third Sector experience.
  9. Integrate, integrate, integrate. Over time, you should try to integrate your e-service/CRM systems across as many of your activities as possible. This way you will get the real efficiencies.
  10. Put the service user at the heart of the system. Traditional database and CRM systems are designed with the staff users and internal procedures in mind. Make sure your e-service platform has been specifically designed to put the users (or donors, customers, etc) first. Your charity’s services are for them.

Finally, I would encourage you to reject the notion that your charity’s service users will not use e-services. I have seen this notion proved wrong – every time.

With great e-service platforms, charities can significantly expand their reach, quality of delivery, support and income. So get started!

Patrick Nash is founder and CEO of Connect Assist, a social enterprise providing e-service and business engagement systems, multi-channel helplines, data services and consultancy. He has worked for 30 years in the Third Sector as a fundraiser, project manager, chief executive and social entrepreneur. Connect Assist is a reseller for a global e-services and CRM platform.

ra_logoCopyright, The Resource Alliance; posted with permission.